WALTER EHRESMAN: No Unifying ThemeAs a further sprint towards the unexplored horizons of commercial oblivion, Walter Ehresman (leader/founder/multi-instrumentalist for the Austin band Snipe Hunt) presents a collection of pieces that are even more wildly diverse than his previous 8 solo, and 3 band, albums. At some level he must realize this, because the title of his new solo album is No Unifying Theme. While the title is a reference to the way these particular songs came together into one release (most were written for specific projects and commissions), the listener may not agree that no connective thread exists between them. Then again, the listener might have to be a bit of an odd duck to see that thread......and that is the core audience Ehresman has always cultivated.
Says Ehresman, "My good friend Derrick Caballero and I used to have an ongoing discussion back in the 80s when we led several Austin bands together (eg. Loper, Dirty Dog, Swine Patrol)...Derrick believed that a band should establish a sound and should stick to that sound and develop a following with it, while I believed that a group of musicians will always run the risk of sounding too "samey" no matter what styles they play in by virtue of the fact that it's the same four guys doing all the playing and singing....My theory was always to try as many diverse songwriting styles as possible to combat that fact (and to keep things interesting)." As Ehresman concedes, "Of course, Derrick did develop a very fine and recognizable style, and his band work once we parted musical ways was always more popularly received than my own......and I've been getting more obscure and less commercially viable with every passing day since then."
Still, over all the years of performances and CDs both alone and with Snipe Hunt, it seems as if a style has emerged that can be said to be the "Walt Ehresman Sound"......but how to define it? Maybe it's a single-minded devotion to a certain set of guiding principles: that no musical style is out of bounds; that risks are good and chances are made to be taken; that strange instruments (oud, bouzouki, theremin, electric sitar, 8-string bass, deer antlers, car keys etc.) should be thrown into the mix in ways they were never designed for; that sonic sound quality should always be the best it can be, and that the little "psychedelic headphone touches" can be what makes an album special; and that lyric-writing is an important responsibility, and no subject matter is taboo as long as you keep a little humor in there somewhere. As for his voice.....well, you can't do anything about that (except for applying liberal doses of vocal processing, thus upping the strangeness ante).
As with his last two solo albums (Le Cafard, and The Feral Rugby Team Must GO!), No Unifying Theme is an album deeply marked by Ehresman's ongoing participation in the Burning Man Festival in the Black Rock Desert of Northwestern Nevada each August. An attendee since '99, Ehresman was for several years the Musical Director for The Solo Collective, a 170-person theme camp at the festival, and now holds that position for a smaller, eclectic spin-off group called SCARAB ("Society for Creative Arts and Radio at Burning Man"). Aside from creating and assembling various art pieces on the playa each year, Walter also DJs at Radio Electra-a radio station that operates on the playa and broadcasts music to the event. His multi-cultural community dances, simulcast on Electra, have been a fixture since 2002 and have featured North African and Sub-Saharan dance music (Brazil will be the theme in '04, and New Orleans in '05). His original music was used for the Egeria fire fountain scultupure in 2003, and the 2004 art installations by Morley John collectively titled "1 to 2.7 Billion" (www.2point7.org/), which used the entire huge layout of the Burning Man festival to give a sense of galactic distances in our solar system. Ehresman has also performed live at various venues around the playa.
"I'm drawn at a very fundamental level to the tremendously warm vibe that surrounds this event," Ehresman says. "Unlike most moments of human interaction, on the playa each August people's first reaction to each other is 'What can I do for you?' rather than the converse. I know it sounds corny and unlikely, but it's not......it is a fantastically funky and fun atmosphere, and the system works because 99% of the people there embrace it. The event was designed to foster a new idea of what a community can be and, like any community, it works as well as the people in it make it work....and Burners are a special breed." Ehresman continues "I've met the most incredibly bright and creative people out there, and made many deep, life-long friendships. It has also redefined for me who an 'artist' can be, and has inspired me to new areas of musical expression as well as prompted me to attempt my first real efforts in the actual conception and construction (and eventual burning) of physical art pieces."
The opening cut of No Unifying Theme, "When They Burn the Man," is a song several years in the making. "When I got back from the playa in 2000, I decided I really wanted to write a comprehensive song about the event from my perspective," Ehresman explains. " I wrote the lyrics that year, but really wasn't sure what musical direction to take.....I wanted to do justice to the depth of the experience, so the music had to be just right." The final result, recorded in 2003, makes use of a wide variety of styles: tribal percussion and synths form a bed over which desert electric guitar and a pulsing 5-string bass part drive the song. The Pink Floyd influence, which has manifested itself from time to time in Ehresman's recordings going all the way back to 1989's Honor in the Swine? release, rears its head again here-especially in the very trippy solo (played on MIDI guitar, modulated by breath controller). The song provides a strong intro to the album, and is much more psychedelic than the rockers Ehresman usually opens his solo releases with.
Track #2, "Napoleon in the Desert," is another in Ehresman's continuing series of treatises on megalomania. "I am continually fascinated, I suppose in a morbid sort of way, by the way people who gain even a modicum of power are often irresistibly drawn toward abusing it.......even in situations and contexts where you really wouldn't expect it, " says Ehresman. "I suppose it's just a common disease of the human mind....even a predisposition, or relic from our pre-sentient days as dung-flinging monkeys." The music again conjures up images of desert landscapes, but here one gets a distinct feeling of Northern Mexico as the mariachi trumpet, cowbell, nylon-string guitar, and trotting percussion (no pun intended) are enough to make your mouth dry (a thirst Walter encourages you to slake, of course, w/ a quick 12-oz. curl of Bohemia or Dos Equis while listening to the song). This is not a song about the Shrub in Iraq, believe it or not, nor is it a song about Larry Harvey, founder of Burning Man.
Track #3, "Darwin's Jigsaw," continues to explore Ehresman's fascination with human behavior as it relates to our evolutionary climb from non-sentient to sentient beings. "It has often seemed to me, especially when I watch the national news or drive in Austin traffic, that mankind as he exists today represents an evolutionary dead-end," Ehresman laments. "Before we became self-aware, we were just animals like any other, and had an animal's instincts for self-preservation. Unfortunately, our evolution gave us sentience before it weaned us off the controlling effects of these animal drives. The problem, of course, is that a cheetah can't kill thousands of people with its "decisions" like a CEO can, and a spiny echidna can't poison huge portions of the entire planet." Ehresman points out "People may not want to see themselves this way, but what is true remains true regardless of a person's willingness to accept it.....that's what this song is really about." The music begins here with a delicate acoustic guitar intro, moving into a jazzy B3 groove that exists somewhere between Pat Metheny and the Doors. This may be Ehresman's most successful jazz guitar playing to date (which may or may not be true about his "brush kit" drum part).
Track #4 will undoubtedly piss off a bunch of Texans (while maybe validating what many other folks in the country think of them, especially after the Shrub was elected). Ehresman is, as you may expect, unrepentant: "I've lived in Texas all my life....born in Houston, raised in San Antonio, and a 24 year resident of Austin, and have worked in Texas government for over 15 years.....I think that qualifies me to comment on the 'Texas mindset.' When I moved to San Francisco in July of last year, with an intention of getting married out there, I decided to let fly, as it were, with this song on the way out. One friend said I left the state 'by the light of burning bridges.' There has always been a tendency in Texas to take the 'cowboy myth' and idea of the 'rugged individualist' and use it to excuse a wide array of selfish behavior (eg. the 'Rule of Capture' law, over 100 years old, that allows property owners to pump dry the aquifers they share with all their neighbors and owe them nothing). The same psychological phenomenon was very eloquently described in the bestseller The Fatal Shore, as it applies to a purported Australian tendency. And even though I've met countless fine Texas souls during my lifetime, I have also seen a real intensifying of this selfish way of thinking in Texas over the last 20 years or so.....The mystifying trend of proud anti-intellectualism all over the country, with Texas as ground zero, that elected a president; the rise of staggeringly blatant hypocrisy and for-hire status of the state's so-called 'elected leaders'; the complete collapse of the state's educational system; and on and on.....the song pretty much spells out what I'm talking about.......And it's all cloaked in some kind of macho BS appeal to the 'Texas mindset'.......if you don't believe me, just watch any local truck or beer or political ad (there ain't much difference between 'em)." The music is in a cowpunk style, which is new vehicle for Ehresman. "It was a lot of fun recording this song......I guess all those times I went to Flametrick Subs/Satan's Cheerleader gigs did some kind of damage to my subconscious," he explains. "It was very cathartic to get all this stuff off my chest, and I don't much care how folks take it, though I would hope it might prompt Texans to look around them a little bit and think about how Texas can be made to be a more honorable place, worthy of what unpolluted/unpaved countryside we have left.......since, as anyone can tell you who has been here, Texas is by and large a beautiful place."
Track #5, "Xenophobia," uses the empty, sterile music of the dance club to drive home the morally vacant tendency the title describes. The lyrics address xenophobic manifestations both here and abroad. But hell, it's got a beat and you can dance to it.....so go ahead and give it a "9"!
Track #6, "The Weighty Apparatus," is also a new style for Ehresman-the Irish freedom ballad. "I wrote the lyrics and music back in '99, but never had the guts to go out on a limb like this until last year's recording sessions in California with Snipe Bog Mobile," Ehresman explains. "Once I firmed up the idea for the recording, the song kind of took on a life of its own and morphed in strange and hopefully interesting ways. Singing with a fake accent is harder than I thought!" Lyrically, the song uses the Irish allegory to sing of individuality, non-conformity, oppression, and freedom. Musically, the song was recorded to sound like it was done live in a pub in Dublin, down to the rowdy drunken regulars who are only gradually drawn in to paying attention. The instrumental section is Walt's first with his recently-acquired custom electric bouzouki, and also features his custom Electric SnipeMando. The lengthy Celtic harp outro is quite beautiful, as the haunting chants of a mob fade to silence at the end.
Track #7, "Gjallerhorn Processional," is another Burning Man-related song. "The art theme for our Theme Camp on the playa in '03 was Norse mythology," Ehresman explains. "We have so many incredibly creative and talented people in our camp! Two of them, Bart and Ray, in Arizona and New Jersey, respectively, constructed two giant alpenhorns--each over 10ft long, one made of brass and one made from a single tree trunk. Fitted with tuba mouthpieces, they were both mounted on a mobile platform so that they could be pulled around the playa by my SnipeTrike (see photo on the back of this CD). In Norse mythology, the world ends at Ragnarok, signaled when the god Heimdall blows his giant Gjallerhorn. For our performance art piece, the Viking-horned keepers of the Gjallerhorns made processions around the playa and let passers-by blow in Ragnarok from either of the two horns (after first doing a medicinal shot of Metaxa or mescal, of course). My jambox was mounted to the back of the SnipeTrike, and I needed a cassette tape full of pagan marches to accompany our processions. I wrote and recorded "Gjallerhorn Processional" as the lead-off track, and I'm real pleased with how it turned out." This is an intense, extended piece of instrumental music with three distinct sections. Initially, pounding martial drums and heathen electric guitar mix with temple bells and gongs to create an image of a fantastic procession marching out from behind an ancient walled city, the crowds lining the route to pay tribute. The second section is more Ottoman in nature, with the electric bouzouki providing Mediterranean figures and the 8-string bass playing an ominous drone. The final section is somewhat lighter, though no less mystical, led by electric sitar and tablas and bringing the procession firmly into the Indus Valley, where the participants are presumably too drunk to continue any further. A fine, powerful piece. In the Spring of 2006, Austin bellydance sensation Seichi presented a series of performances of an original dance piece she choreographed to this 8 1/2 minute song.
Track #8, "Sarah Down the Aisle," was written and recorded by Walt to be used at two different ceremonies.....one that happened and one that didn't. "I moved to San Francisco last year to marry a wonderful girl I had met at Burning Man in 2002," Ehresman tells us. "The plan was to have a 'playa wedding' at Burning Man '03, followed later in the year by a legal wedding on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean south of the City. My good friends Bart and Lesley put together a spectacular Viking wedding ceremony, in keeping with the theme of our camp that year, and we had a huge turnout for it." The song was written for his fiancee', Sarah, to walk down the aisle to at both ceremonies. Unfortunately, the relationship did not end up working out and Walt moved back to Texas in December of 2003. The song was used for the playa ceremony, though.
Track #9, "Only On Islands Like This," was written by Ehresman as part of his recent fascination with tiki culture. "About a year ago," he told us, "I stumbled across a website with these awesome ceramic mugs designed for drinking tiki drinks out of (see www.munktiki.com). After some investigation, I found out about the big 'tiki' fad in the '50s and 60's in this country, and how an underground group of devotees is keeping it alive. Well, I got hooked....I mean, come on.....strong drinks set on fire in wild mugs and you get to wear loud print shirts in tacky bars filled with faux South Pacific trappings and music? What's not to love?" Since the song was written for a female vocalist, Ehresman was able to induce Sarah Sevilla (his fiancee' at the time) to make her singing debut during the California recording sessions with Snipe Bog Mobile. Ehresman encourages the consumption of flaming tiki drinks ("the Scorpion is particularly good, as is my own creation--the Dominican Face Hat") while listening to this song.
The final regular track, "Together, By Egeria," was commissioned by the San Francisco artist Kiki Petit for use at Burning Man '03 during a ceremony to honor her wedding anniversary while lighting her wonderful giant fire fountain Egeria (see http://burningideas.com/firefall/index.html). The art installation is a three-tiered fountain with fire flowing across the surface of the water. You can put your hand in and scoop up the flames without being burned. "Kiki mentioned the types of music she likes, including various Oriental forms.....bansuri flute, Indonesian gamelon music, and Japanese and Chinese styles," Ehresman explains, "and I wrote this piece incorporating all those elements." There is a delicacy to this piece of instrumental music through its three discreet movements, though dynamic tension is certainly created.....the solo bansuri flute intro floats in the air in a very transitory and fragile way, while the gamelon middle section is almost frantic as the myriad of metal gongs play fast, repeating melodic variations. The stately final section is a restatement of the opening theme, mixing strings with Chinese and Japanese plucked instruments (koto, etc.). Delicacy and "small sounds" reappear with a very nice little coda. Overall, a very satisfying end to the winding journey of this album.
But there's more!
A few years back, Ehresman was sent a link to a website which described the nation of Ladonia (www.ladonia.net). It was "born" when a group of Swedish artists and anarchists seized a small portion of a remote stretch of coastline (see full description on CD Baby page for Ehresman's solo album The Feral Rugby Team Must GO!), and began erecting large art structures on it. Intrigued, Ehresman contacted the Secretary of State, and a deal was made whereby Ehresman wrote a Slightly Longer National Anthem for the country ("Ladonia: For Thee I Fling", found as a bonus track on The Feral Rugby Team Must GO!) and was in exchange named Minister of Dubious Anthems in the Ladonian cabinet (later promoted to Eternal Minister of Chilis and Dubious Anthems). "Diplomatic immunity is something that my lifestyle has sorely needed for many years now, and I have greatly enjoyed taking full advantage of my new status......the savings in legal fees alone is staggering," Ehresman says gleefully. Now, on No Unifying Theme, Ehresman unveils four new Ladonian anthems as bonus tracks:
Track #11, "She Rises From Nimis-the Queen's Anthem (a Symphony for Orchestra, Stone Cat, Fjord Pygmy Elephant, and Barnyard Animals)," envisions the Queen of Ladonia, rising majestically up from the art tower Nimis, surrounded by the indigenous animals traditionally associated with her.
Track #12, "Anthem for the Ladonian Ministry of Art & Jump," was written for the very esteemed Minister Larsson who, on behalf of his ministry, stages performance art events wherein he jumps (to great fanfare) into bodies of water while very nattily clad....in Sweden....where it's damn cold, they say.
Track #13, "Anthem for the Ladonian Secretary of State," was written to acknowledge the Secretary's tireless efforts at virtual recruitment to keep the larders of Ladonia filled with persons of the right iconoclastic ilk. Since Ladonian citizens, cabinet members, royalty and nobility are physically all over the world, it can truly be said that "the sun never sets on Ladonia." Oh, and the national dish of Ladonia is fried Peregrine Falcon.
Track #14, "Anthem for the Ladonian Minister to the Native American Tribes of Arizona," is self-explanatory, and the music follows the theme right down to the coyotes (four-legged, not two....).
The hidden track was written for use by Peter McKinney, aka "Camp Killer," as a theme song for his annual Burning Man Blues Show on Radio Electra. "It's a wonderful story how he earned his nickname," Ehresman enthuses, "involving travel, suspense, poor planning and large amounts of liquor.....I am, however, paid, I mean 'sworn' to secrecy."
And there you have it.....a trip through the new album where, hopefully, a unifying theme has emerged in your ears after all. Let it work its way into your brain, like the earwigs on "Night Gallery."
1. When They Burn the Man
2. Napoleon in the Desert (a village bites the dust)
3. Darwin's Jigsaw
4. I've Done My Time in Texas
6. The Weighty Apparatus
7. Gjallerhorn Processional
8. Sarah, Down the Aisle
9. Only On Islands Like This
10. Together, By Egeria
11. She Rises From Nimis--the Queen's Anthem (a Symphony for Orchest
12. Anthem for the Ladonian Ministry of Art & Jump
13. Anthem for the Ladonian Sec. of State
14. Anthem for the Ladonian Minister to the Native American Tribes o